Thursday, January 27, 2011

Book Club Read: "The Forgotten Garden"

The neighborhood book club discussed Kate Morton's The Forgotten Garden last week. Morton is an Australian writer and portion's of the book were set in Queensland -- so we were reading about some of the very places that were experiencing devastating floods. Made the news reports that much more poignant.

This story follows three generations of women at significant times and locations in their lives. Morton leaps back and forth between characters, eras, and settings -- which was one of the major criticisms in reader reviews of the novel. One of our members had a heck of a time tracking events. I found that I had no problem following the story as long as I didn't put down the book for a day or two. But when I did take a brief break from it, I also struggled to recall minor characters and past events when I resumed reading.

That said, Morton mainly pulled it off to create an intriguing story.

During Nell's twenty-first birthday party, her father pulls her aside to tell her a secret that her parents had been keeping for most of her life. She is not their natural daughter. In fact, her "father" found her abandoned on the Australian dock after a ship from England had disembarked. Unsure what else to do, he brought the small girl home while he pondered the situation. He and his wife were sadly without children and feared they would never be blessed. In a fateful decision they kept the abandoned girl and relocated so they would not have to explain the sudden appearance of the child in their home. Much to their joy, years later the girl they named Nell became a big sister.

Nell reacts to the information by pulling away from those who love her most. Her younger sisters adore her and her parents dote on her. But Nell labels herself "disposable." She is convinced that she was discarded by a bad mother and must therefore be one herself. She breaks her engagement to her childhood sweetheart and begins a lifelong search for her real identity.

As the novel unfolds the reader learns other characters have also been abandoned, generally by the death of a loved one.

In addition to Abandonment, Guilt is another issue in the book. Nell's father lived with the guilt of keeping the little girl without attempting to locate her relations. But in the process of relieving his guilt he still keeps back the entire truth -- because it also carries guilt.

Morton reveals the mystery of Nell's true identity through her actions, those of her granddaughter Cassandra, as well as the life of "the Authoress" -- the woman who had placed the little girl on the ship to Australia. Generally the transitions between point-of-view character and setting went smoothly. After a clue is discovered by one character at a later period, Morton would in the next section or chapter take the reader back to the referenced scene and fill in more information.

I have to say, very early on (in the first 60 pages) I came to a conclusion regarding Nell's true identity and read the remainder of the book with that in mind. I thus was able to appreciate Morton's clues and misdirections. However, she did create doubt in my mind later in the book but I was only momentarily put off track. I was correct about Nell's origins, but not in how it came about (more about that later).

In general, our group enjoyed the book and near the end we were thoroughly absorbed as all the clues were coming together. But, like me, by the next day we were feeling a little cheated. Although Morton did a good job of dropping in her clues, we felt she didn't completely play fair with a couple of them. After building up the sociopathic tendencies of one character, Morton raised fears and expectations among we readers that seemed to peter out following the single action she required of him for her main plot. We were most bothered that the primary answer to Nell's identity required a hefty suspension of disbelief from the reader, with little lead-in as preparation. And none of us really understood why Nell rejected everyone who loved her when her origin was revealed to her on her birthday.

Some of the imagery was a bit blatant -- an English hedge maze symbolized Nell's and Cassandra's difficulties in uncovering the truth. On the other hand, the image of dust motes caught in a ray of sunlight was a lovely connection between distant yet similar scenes.

The big questions were: Did Nell's "father" do the right thing by keeping the abandoned child? Should he have told Nell about her true origins? I'll let other readers decide for themselves. We concluded that Nell's father was wrong to keep the abandoned girl without attempting to determine her identity; however, this actually turned out to be the best thing for Nell.

I'll conclude with our favorite dialogue from the book: We make a life out of what we have, not what we've lost.

The Forgotten Garden begins with a fascinating premise and gives the reader a cross-generational mystery that raises some excellent questions about when and how much truth is appropriate.

Our next book is Winter Garden, by Kristin Hannah. It will be my initiation to ebooks -- I'm reading it on my new Kindle (thanks, Mom!).


wilsonc said...

Does your book club have a garden theme going for 2011? The Forgotten Garden sounds interesting to me, and I think I may pick it up to read myself. I, too, have a new Kindle. Love it. I read Winter Garden late last year.

Oregon Equestrian said...

Sure looks that way, doesn't it? Pure coincidence. Gave us a chuckle.

We take turns suggesting books, and the assigned member was already reading this one. Since she's a northwest author and the book is set in Washington, we thought it would be fun.